Friday, March 30, 2018

I am walking

In the last decade I have had a complicated relationship with walking. Walking has given me both my best moments and my biggest heartbreaks. I thought our long separation was to be permanent, but the past two weeks in the Azores have given me a taste of all that I have missed. 

In  the summers of 2009 and 2010 I walked 750 kms across France on the Camino de Santiago.   Although this is one of my proudest achievements, it also led to a devastating heartbreak when I had to stop at St. Jean Pied de Port because of ongoing back problems. 

After many attempts to get back to walking failed, I completed the pilgrimage through Spain on bike while Gord finished it on foot.  I didn’t realize at the time that I would be parting company with any serious walking for years to come. 

It was not lost time by any means, I just stopped walking. Gord and I have enjoyed fantastic trips with our bikes. I am very grateful that I have been able to complete a number of pilgrimage routes on bike, and cycle across Europe, Thailand and Laos, but I have missed walking. 

Either the stars have aligned or with the right combination of modern chiropractic care and new orthotics I am once again walking!  I have not walked as much as I have in the Azores since we were on foot on the Camino. Although I know the relationship is temperamental and might be fleeting,  I am so grateful to be able to walk right now.  I will never take a beautiful walk for granted, even if it only rolls into town once a decade. 

These are nature's original slow cookers, where volcanic steam is used to cook stew at a public picnic area.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Walking in Eastern São Miguel


Gordon:  During the last couple of days we have been doing a series of walks in the wilder, eastern portion of São Miguel.  Yesterday we went for a beautiful coastal walk before lunch, and then an excursion up a lush canyon afterwards.  On the return leg we passed through the tiny community of Sanguinho, which does not have road access.  There were clearly many more people living there in the past, but the community is clearly enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

Today we went on three shorter walks on the north coast.  The first was a ramble through farmland, the second was along a wild coast, and the third visited the “Blue Pool”, a quiet pool in a narrow canyon that really is an eerie shade of blue.  Once again we saw ample evidence that the land had at one time supported a higher population density.

We have been enjoying lunch at small local restaurants between hikes.  Today we had a delicious meal of beef ribs, taro and sweet potatoes.  The portions were huge, and served with a beer and an espresso the bill was 6.5 euros each.  I believe that in general the costs of food and accommodation are lower in the Azores than they are in continental Portugal, which has the best prices in Western Europe.  For the next couple of nights we have rented a century old, three bedroom house that has been beautifully restored.  It costs about 40 euros a night, a bit more in high season.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Camelias on Sao Miguel

Ruth: We are back on Sao Miguel and once again I am blown away by the diversity of the island. This morning we went on a short hike that did a circuit of the Gorreana tea plantation.  (Gordon tells me that it isn't pronounced like an S.T.D.)  The plant that produces tea, it turns out, is a member of the camellia family.  After visiting the farm and tasting a couple of their varieties of tea we went in search of our midday meal. We were not disappointed in Ribeira Grande, where for just 6 euros we had a splendid feed. 

We are now staying in Furnas, the Banff of Sao Miguel. The town is situated in a volcano caldera that still has boiling springs steaming right in the center of town. We spent the afternoon at the Terra Nossa garden, which was started more than 200 years ago.  It has an extraordinary collection, including enormous Norfolk pines, a long avenue of ancient ginko trees, and 800 varieties of camellias.  We are here at a good time of the year to enjoy the blossoms of the camellias and the azaleas.  The garden also has several hot springs to soak in, which we enjoyed after all of our walking during the day.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Walking on Flores

Gordon:  The Azores have embraced the idea of walking holidays, with marked trails and brochures available from the tourist offices or on line.  The island of Flores is no exception, with the tempting claim of the most westerly walk in Europe (with the exception of Greenland, if there is a west coast walk there).  

The west coast walk breaks down nicely into two days of walking, each ending at our town of Fajã Grande, which is located at the middle of the west coast.  The tourist website shows the northerly segment as “closed” but we asked around and no one believed that was true, so I walked both sections on consecutive days.  

What spectacular outings!  The trails are ancient routes to the fields and between villages (usually shorter than the much newer roads).  There are massive dry stone walls of lava, with lush pastures and flowers everywhere.  I passed occasional taro fields, and banana and orange trees.  Cattle, a major product of the Azores, are scattered liberally over the landscape.  If I am reincarnated as a cow I would like it to be in the Azores, as life seems very good for them.  In fact, I am developing the opinion that the cows here are enlightened, and possibly deeply intellectual.  I believe a couple of them were discussing string theory when they were unaware of my approach.  

The southern section of the trail passes through a couple of picturesque villages.  The more dramatic, northern section has open views to the island of Corvo, before dropping down a cliff face.  The brochure contains a warning for those with a tendency to vertigo, not without some justification.

Ruth and I did a couple of shorter walks today, including one to the nearby village of Cuada.  This hamlet was abandoned following mass emigration in the 1960s.  However, it has been beautifully restored as a vacation village with 17 traditional houses for rent.

Ruth: Every walk back into town involves passing the dreaded goose. 

Saturday, March 24, 2018


I am starting to believe that Flores Island is actually the lost world of Atlantis. It turns out that the world is not in itself lost, but the people who find themselves here run the risk of never returning to their homes. Take our host Neil, who came here with his wife twelve years ago for a short holiday. On a lark, they looked at a house that was for sale and the island's magical force began to tangle them in the ivy that would hold them here. Their house in Edinburgh was sold and roots were quickly grown in this little village. Stories like this are not uncommon. This morning we met a guy from Finland who claimed he had to get away from the Zoloft haze of Finland to finally discover unmedicated happiness here. No, he will not return, he firmly reported. Now his trilingual toddler is making new friends at the local grocery store/bar/meeting place. The owner of the grocery store speaks perfect English and describes her abandonment of the Bay Area in California to return here permanently. I can feel the pull myself as I Google real estate listings to see if there is a tempting house waiting for Gord and I. 

A view of Corvo, the smallest island in the Azores, population 400.

The current population of Flores is less than 5,000, down from more than twice that number 150 years ago. The smart ones either never left or returned. As a toothless local with a Boston accent said, "There's no money here, but I got cows, chickens, a lot of land and my pension."  When I asked the bar owner if he was from here, he said, "I'm from this island, from this town and from this house. I was born in this house."

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Terceira and on to Flores

Ruth: We opted for a stopover on the island of Terceira so that we could visit the UNESCO listed port town of Angra do Heroismo.  It was an important staging point for the Spanish treasure fleets from the New World in the 16th century, when Portugal was under Spanish rule.  In a Canadian footnote, the Portuguese captain who discovered Newfoundland was an important figure in Angra in the late 15th century.  We got out for a walk in town as soon as the sun was up. It was well worth the stop. 

In the afternoon we returned to the airport to fly on to Flores. We are now at the Westernmost tip of Europe, unless you count Greenland. Flores has a population of 4,400 and receives about the same number of visitors in a year.  We expected it to be lush and beautiful, but we have landed in paradise. 

For the next four nights our home is a little stone house in the tiny village of  Fajā Grande.

Gord:  When Ruth was three years old she lived in England.  One of her most enduring and traumatic memories from that period was an encounter with a very threatening domestic goose.  Poor Ruth relived that experience yesterday on a road in Faja Grande.  While the goose was not head height, as it was when she three, it did rush at her repeatedly, hissing and with the clear intention of taking a nip.  As at three, I believe Ruth may have wet herself a little.  In the aftermath my lack of chivalry was the subject of some criticism, but in my defence, I had been immobilized by my own laughter.  Ruth recovered later with a glass of Moscatel on our patio.